John Devitt, a gold medallist at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, was captain of the Australian swimming team that won eight gold medals, including every freestyle event, at the Melbourne Games. He was 19, and respected among many older swimmers, when he was named to that post after the 1956 Olympic trials. During championships and trials leading up the Games, Devitt was consistently overshadowed by Jon Henricks, who had never been beaten in a sprint event. In the Olympic 100m freestyle final, Henricks won narrowly from Devitt, with Gary Chapman making it a 1-2-3 result for Australia. The quartet of Henricks, Devitt, Murray Rose and the West Australian Kevin O’Halloran went on to win the final of the 4 x 200m relay event.
In Rome four years later Devitt won the 100m freestyle championship controversially over the American Lance Larson. Devitt’s fancied team-mate Henricks had been weakened by gastric illness suffered en route to Rome, and failed to progress beyond the semi-finals. After Devitt and Larson finished in a near dead-heat in the final, confusion developed. Two of the three first-place judges picked Devitt as the winner, but two second-place judges named him as second. Timekeepers gave Devitt’s time as 55.2 seconds and Larson’s as 55.1. After an agonising eight-minute delay it was announced that Devitt was the winner and 55.2 seconds the time --- an Olympic record. A protest from the Americans was rejected, but arguments continued for six years. One positive outcome was to provide impetus for the introduction of electronic timing. Devitt also won bronze in the 4 x 200m relay.
Harry Gordon, AOC historian